The Contenders

Release: Nov. 3

Distrib: Sony Pictures Classics

Oscar Alum: Pedro Almodovar (screenplay, “Talk to Her”; foreign language, “All About My Mother”)

Pedro Almodovar began his career as a high-heeled renegade, churning out transgressive, gender-bending dramedies that brought the post-Franco Spanish film scene to international attention. As he entered maturity with 1999’s “All About My Mother,” he retained his punkish aesthetic while embracing more traditional storytelling, winning two Oscars in the process.

This synthesis comes to full fruition with “Volver,” the helmer-scribe’s most assured work to date. Flattering early notices and a screenplay win at Cannes should cement his standing in both the original screenplay and foreign-language categories as well as boosting his chances for a second director nomination.

True to its title, “Volver” is Almodovar’s filmic return to his birthplace of La Mancha, and comparisons to Federico Fellini’s Oscar-winning homecoming “Amarcord” are appropriate. While free of the shock tactics and high-camp flourishes that marked his earlier work (and may have alienated some Academy voters), “Volver” is nonetheless a characteristic Almodovar film, showcasing his Felliniesque ability to conjure genuine pathos out of screwball comedy and bathroom humor.

Of the thesps, Penelope Cruz delivers the most striking performance, a welcome return to form after serving as mere eye candy in a series of lackluster English-language films. Her Raimunda is simultaneously an unflappable single mother and a fragile orphaned daughter, and Cruz is dazzling as she balances the two personas, sometimes shifting from one to the other in the course of a single shot. The Cannes jury awarded the distaff ensemble cast its actress prize.

Indeed, “Volver’s” odds in the acting categories might be hindered by Oscar’s lack of an ensemble award. Yet Cruz stands out in a uniformly excellent cast, giving her a substantial chance to become the first actress Oscar winner in a foreign-language film since Sophia Loren.

A supporting actress nod is possible for Carmen Maura, who, as the ghost of Cruz’s mother, gives the kind of playful yet authoritative portrayal that Academy voters have honored in this category in the past (think Dianne Wiest and Judi Dench). Though perhaps unfamiliar to American auds, Maura’s impressive CV and memorable turn in Almodovar’s breakout “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” warrant recognition.

Special attention should also be paid to cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, an Almodovar vet and veritable fixture at Spain’s Goya Awards (15 noms, four wins). Here he eschews the psychedelic palette of both his and Almodovar’s previous efforts, lensing “Volver” in washed-out colors befitting La Mancha’s barren, windswept landscape, with occasional splashes of eye-popping reds (dresses, lips, cars, tomatoes, blood) providing narratively-evocative counterpoints.

Almodovar’s last three films were, in a foreign-language arthouse context, relative blockbusters, and positive buzz should make “Volver” pop come January.

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